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November 8, 2008
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2008, Sunday August 31: St. Augustine's Grange, Ramsgate

St. Augustine's Grange - Dining Room
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Perhaps more than any other individual, Pugin shaped the Victorian taste for High Gothic, and it was from his self-built home in Ramsgate that he did most of his later work.

It was just after dawn that I felt Pugin’s presence most keenly. While the house was still silent I’d gone downstairs to sit at his heavy wooden desk. From here, Pugin had fired off polemic after polemic promoting the ‘Christian’ ideals of neo-Gothic architecture and adornment, and inveighing against the rival ‘pagan’ classicism that he so despised.

As I imagined the great man’s presence - hushing his noisy children through the velvet curtains that he drew behind him, freshly-minted sunbeams streamed through the tall bay windows, flecking tiny dust motes that danced in the air. On the other side of the glass, my eyes ran across close-cropped lawns, over a dun brick wall, and on to the North Sea, still partially wreathed in mist. Dancing in and out of vision were the distant Goodwin Sands - a favourite object of contemplation for Pugin, who used to survey them daily by telescope in an eccentric search for wrecks.

When I’d been invited for a weekend at St. Augustine’s Grange, Pugin’s former home, I’d jumped at the chance. I might not share Pugin’s aesthetic passions, but I hadn’t been unable to resist a peek inside the master’s house. By the time he embarked on the Grange, Pugin was already one of the most celebrated figures in the country (famous principally for designing the interiors of the Houses of Parliaments) and he’d had the means as well as inclination to indulge his architectural and decorative theories to the full. In a revolutionary break from tradition, he’d planned the Grange from the inside out, around a light-filled central vestibule and galleried stairwell. Pugin had added secret doors, tiled corridors, a turreted lookout and even a private chapel; but the overwhelming element was the interior ornamentation – heavily carved woodwork, leaded stained glass, iron chandeliers and, on almost every surface, bold heraldic wallpaper, with the Pugin family’s merlot (bird) emblem standing erect amid Gothic lettering and vivid red, gold and green tracery.

Tragically, within a few years of moving into the Grange Pugin fell into madness (either through mercury poisoning or syphilis; although after a night in his bedchamber I wouldn’t be surprised if all those birds on the walls hadn’t lent a hand). Shortly after, he died. The Grange was subsequently taken over and extended by his son, but after that it declined; sliding by the 1990s through spells as monastery accommodation and a prep school into ruinous neglect. Recently, however, it’s been returned to the state it was in during Pugin’s lifetime after a meticulous £2 million restoration carried out by the Landmark Trust. As a result, since 2006, it’s been possible to stay in St. Augustine’s Grange as a holiday let or to visit on guided tours (Wednesday afternoons).

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